LONGVIEW, Wash. — On a chilly Saturday in Kelso, Jason Thieleman cradled his shivering chihuahua under the Cowlitz Way Bridge, waiting patiently with other homeless people.
“She goes everywhere with me,” said Thieleman, 43, smiling affectionately at 6-year-old Debobella as she nuzzled his chin.
Within moments, though, Debobella was snuggling in a floral quilt stitched together by a group of 10 inmates from the state prison at Shelton. Thieleman, grateful for the gift of warmth, said homeless people share something in common with prison inmates.
“When you can’t get a job and no one will help you, it’s like being in prison except you’re out in the cold,” he said. “That is what can cause people to sink into bad deeds like drugs and alcohol: Feeling like there’s nothing left.”
The prison quilting group formed about five years ago with a handful of inmates who had grown up sewing with their grandmothers, said Jeanne Thietje, the community partnership programs coordinator at Shelton.
“I’ve seen a lot of men sit in silence and figure out, ‘I’m here and what am I going to do with my life?’ ” Thietje said. “They are in a situation where they’ve been told what they’ve taken from the community. It’s a natural human reaction to think, ‘What can I do to fix that?’ “
All materials and sewing machines are donated to the group. The members meet once or twice a week during their free time to make quilts for homeless people or charity auctions across Washington.
“Pretty much these guys are teaching each other,” she said. “They have no internet access so it’s all by word of mouth or reading or experience. It’s not like in the outside world where you can watch a YouTube video.”
Most recently, the prison group received a request from Longview resident Betty Ostberg for 40 quilts to be distributed to homeless people in the Longview-Kelso area. Ostberg’s 60-year-old son is incarcerated at Shelton and is a member of the quilting group.
“It’s their way of giving back to the community. They’re doing their time, but they want to help others too,” Ostberg said.
Ostberg and a handful of volunteers Saturday set up two tables under the Cowlitz Way Bridge, braving the whipping wind, to distribute the quilts. The volunteers are from a Friday night adult Bible study group self-titled the Sinner’s Church.
Ostberg, 81, said she started hosting the gatherings for former felons to have a church community. The group now includes non-offenders and has since grown too large for Ostberg’s living room. So now the 30 members meet at Shekinah Christian Center on Third Avenue in Longview.
“These guys are like family. It was important to me that they had somewhere to worship,” Ostberg said. “God told me to do it. When God tells you to do something, you had better do it. That’s what I think.”
Rod and Tandena, both homeless in the Kelso area, said their new quilts will help them stay warm at night in their tent.
“I would like to say to the prisoners, ‘Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,’ ” said Rod, 51. “It’s a kind thing to do and it’s a productive thing to do with their time. They are giving back to the community.”
The Bible study group only had 15 recipients on Saturday, but they went out again on Tuesday and distributed the remaining 25 quilts. Ostberg said each person who received a quilt was appreciative.
“A lot of homeless people are misunderstood and frowned upon. Or people just look the other way,” Thieleman said. “It makes you feel good (to receive the quilts) because it means people do actually care.”
Thietje said the quilting group also gave the inmates something to feel good about.
“We sometimes think inmates are the worst of the worst, but I think human hearts have the capacity to give and learn from human mistakes.”